The Old in the New

Traditions meet trends when the young generation takes on the possibilities of painting and textile work during the coming art season in Finland.

Åke Hellman, Saxen (Karin) [The Scissors (Karin)] (1970) and Målaren (Självporträtt mot arktisk fond) [The Painter (Self Portrait Against Arctic Background] (1970). Photo: Hannu Aaltonen.

It is hardly presumptuous to say that the immediate association evoked by the word ‘art’ for most people is an image of a painting. But this is not something that only applies to the average citizen: if you’re an art enthusiast in Helsinki this is constantly confirmed to you. Over the past few years, painting has slowly but surely become more prominent in the city’s art scene.

A crass analysis of the profusion of relatively large-scale oil or acrylic paintings in the commercial galleries is that it is simply a response to a demand. But it is also about tradition meeting trend, a young generation of artists taking on a very classic form of visual art and exploring its possibilities and relevance in a digitised, globalised, and infinitely photographed world. In addition to this, attitudes towards purchasing art seem to have changed. For more and more people, paintings have become associated with interior decorating, objects with the potential to convey status in the same way as designer furniture, and among young adults there has been a surge of interest in owning art. In the latter case, one should add, it is often explicitly about a willingness to support artists; it is consumption partly influenced by an intention to work for solidarity.

Overall, enthusiasm for local painters characterises the Finnish art world, and a large number of female painters are represented within it, many of whom have graduated from Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts. I want to emphasise that gender is not mentioned here with the intention of pigeonholing – the dream is to never have to talk about binary gender when art is discussed. However, gender equality is unfortunately far from being a fact, so it is refreshing to see how widespread respect for female artists has emerged more or less organically.

Anna Tuori, The Sun That Grew Round That Very Day, 2017.

Anna Tuori is one of the most famous Finnish contemporary painters. After a show in Paris earlier this year – which was partly disrupted by the ongoing pandemic – she will exhibit at the Anhava gallery in September. In addition to an exceptional interpretation of movement and speed, Tuori’s work skilfully incorporates undertones of decadence and modernity that are hinted at in details, as well as a share of headlessness or facelessness. This latter artistic choice is found in several other current artists, albeit in very different ways. At artist-run Myymälä2, a solo exhibition of works by Zahrah Ehsan opens in October. Her paintings consist of a remarkable combination of faceless women, interiors, graffiti, and surrealist elements, often in colours bordering on vulgar. 

The omission of faces in the photographer Anni Leppälä’s work is more dense and psychoanalytic. Earlier this year her book hyle | curtain | backdrop was nominated for Photo Art Book of the Year, and in September she will exhibit with Eeva Peura at Gallery Ama. The very productive Peura creates paintings full of ominous but enchanting fantasies. Each work feels like a scene from a novel – there is always a clear sense of a before and an after what is depicted. Painting is a given at the Finnish Painters’ Union’s gallery TM-galleria, and among the autumn exhibitions Susanna Vuorios’s stands out. Full of shabby but charismatic characters reminiscent of Swedish artist Lena Cronqvist’s, her paintings are anything but faceless.

As noted, many younger artists work with painting, so the Academy of Fine Arts’s BA and MA exhibitions, which will be on view in the school’s large Exhibition Laboratory in September and October, will probably include a fair share of paintings. Hopefully, though, also much more.

Clare Gallagher, Untitled, 2019.

As a whole, this isn’t an art autumn of significant political stances. There are still no reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, nor to the anti-racist demonstrations that have even spread as far as relatively homogenous Finland.  At the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) the artist duo Gustafsson & Haapojas’s installation Museum of Becoming will be up for the rest of the year. It was originally planned as a part of the inaugural Helsinki Biennial which was scheduled to open in June, and is now postponed until 2021. Terike Haapoja will also be in a solo exhibition at artist-run Forum Box at the end of autumn. There isn’t much information available, but based on her earlier work, it will be a must-see show. 

A different kind of political art project will be shown at the Finnish Museum of Photography at the Cable Factory. The museum’s new gallery venture was a clunky flop that unfortunately doesn’t have anything to offer this fall, as its first outdated and bland Marilyn Monroe exhibition is up through the end of the year. Fortunately, the museum’s original space will be showing Northern Irish artist Clare Gallagher’s beautiful series The Second Shift from mid-October. Gallagher’s work is reminiscent of Rinko Kawauchi’s delicate photographic poetry, but differs in that it is strongly rooted in everyday life and in the local. More specifically, it is about the invisible house work that women almost always end up being responsible for, which feels relevant and important after this spring’s news headlines about how this particular phenomenon was noted broadly in countries with severe lockdowns.

Where Gallagher focuses on her immediate surroundings, the hugely successful museum Amos Rex does the opposite, with its undeniably exciting and surprising initiative to exhibit ancient Egyptian artefacts from the Italian Museo Egizio. The exhibition opens in October and will be an excellent opportunity for critics and visitors to reflect on the European pilfering of antiquities that took place during the hysterical archaeological era that occurred during the first decades of the 20th century. In addition to the ethical aspect, this kind of unusual exhibition in Finland will hopefully also be a breathtaking reminder of how art can act as a bridge between past and present.

The past can also be found this fall at Kunsthalle Helsinki, where an exhibition of Finnish rugs spanning the past four hundred years opens in November. This feels like an important step in the process of restructuring the art canon to include the crafts that have traditionally belonged to the domain of women. Similarly gratifying results can also be expected from Ateneum’s presentation of the Hellmans, a married couple who for decades worked harmoniously with their respective and very different practices in a shared studio in Porvoo. But Karin Hellman’s (1915–2004) original textile art has been virtually unknown until three years ago. Textile art is also given a place in Turku, where the art museum is showing Ahmed Al-Nawas and Minna Henriksson’s newly produced monumental rug Fake Star, which depicts a meteorite impact in Porvoo in 1899 and is based on visual quotations from the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931).

Ahmed Al-Nawas & Minna Henriksson, Fake Star, 2020.

Venturing beyond the capital region, what’s on view is relatively fragmented, but there is a clear interest in artistic collaboration. In Tampere, the city’s artists’ guild celebrates its 100th anniversary with exhibitions at the Mältinranta Art Centre and the Sara Hildén Art Museum, among others. Both of these open in mid-September and consist of curated shows that present a small number of guild members. Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA) in Espoo, on the other hand, is exhibiting Elmgreen & Dragset in what is the pair’s first major solo presentation in Finland. Its contents are being kept secret until the opening at the end of September, but the show is being marketed as a 25-year anniversary exhibition. With that in mind, the choice is understandable, albeit a little predictable – more adventurous Nordic exchanges would be desirable. The Danish feature at the Turku Art Museum this autumn is also of an established kind: the group SUPERFLEX, whose film Western Rampart (2018) will be shown from mid-September, was founded in 1993.

Last, but not least, two interesting projects will be launched in Helsinki this fall: the Photobooks from Finland (PBFF) collective’s Newspaper Vending Machine, and the new festival Aavistus. The former consists of a cheap vending machine that spits out art in the form of newspapers at the  Korjaamo Culture Factory. Aavistus, on the other hand, is a two-day event focusing on audiovisual art. The beautiful graphic design with which the festival is marketed evokes space and synaesthesia. These kinds of extra-institutional innovative projects run by enthusiasts constitute the beating heart of Finnish art life. In a year like this, it makes me extra happy to see them flourish.

Karin Hellman, Datamaskin [Computer Machine], 1969.